Aging In Place

5/8/2023 | By Terri L. Jones

Caring for a loved one goes beyond providing for their physical needs. In the third of her series, “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging,” Seniors Guide writer Terri L. Jones examines safeguarding a senior’s dignity, at what grown children and other caregivers can consider in balancing safety with dignity.

The last year my mother was with us, her COPD and A-fib made her tire easily and she sometimes stayed in the house for days, if not weeks. I was staying with her during one of those weeks, and suddenly, antsy from her days-long seclusion, Mom decided she needed some cash. I begged her to let me go to the ATM for her, but she refused, grabbing her car keys and portable oxygen concentrator and heading for the garage. I convinced myself that I could look out for her if I rode along and I jumped into the passenger seat beside her.

We were barely out of the neighborhood when Mom’s oxygen machine battery started beeping that the charge was low. I panicked, adamant that we turn around and go home, but my mother calmly assured me that everything was fine. She had a fully charged, backup battery with her and would switch it out at the bank, which was only a couple of minutes away.

However, when we reached the bank and she plugged in the new battery, it too squawked, which echoed the alarm sounding in my brain. My mother, on the other hand, was unfazed and continued to the ATM to complete her errand. On the way back home, she may have been driving a little faster than she normally does, but she still remained calm, while my heart was practically beating out of my chest. Thankfully, the charge lasted until we were home, and she was safely hooked up to her home unit.

This incident taught me that despite her illness, my mother still knew what was best for her. She did not need me to watch over her. To do so would be to rob her of her cherished independence, but more importantly, her identity as my strong, competent mother.

Balancing caution with quality of life

While it may be difficult to take a hands-off approach to your parents’ lives, Carol Bradley Bursack, author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories, says that it’s important to remember “that a life worth living often involves taking a few risks. If Mom and/or Dad are still cognitively sound,” she explains, “then it is up to them to decide which risks they’re willing to take.”

That doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to your parents’ safety but sometimes you need to assess whether the danger is real or imagined – in other words, a product of your own anxiety about their aging. “If there are no irregularities with their accounts and bills are getting paid, don’t take over their finances. Let them drive if they’ve shown no signs of being a danger to themselves or anyone else. And a moldy piece of fruit in the crisper or a couple of expired bottles of salad dressing is no reason to clean out the whole fridge and start buying their groceries for them.

Keeping your parents safe while also keeping them happy and safeguarding their dignity can be a delicate balance. Tracie Bartemy learned this lesson when her 87-year-old mother refused to move from her two-story townhouse. “When she was really not in a good way, she agreed to consider some other [one-level] places which I looked into, priced out, and rode her around to see,” notes Tracie. “But she quickly nixed most of them for one reason or another.” Tracie had to stop pushing as much for her own sanity as to honor her mother’s wishes.

As a compromise, Bartemy installed an Amazon Echo Show in her mom’s house, which allows her to not only talk to her mother but also visually check in on her. This electronic device gives Tracie some peace of mind that her mother is safe, but her mother likes it too because it means she doesn’t have to leave the comfort of her recliner to find her cellphone!

Remaining involved

Indian mother and son, from Szefei. For article on safeguarding a senior's dignity.

If you do need to assert some level of control over your parents’ daily activities, it’s important that you don’t let them become an idle bystander in their own lives. In safeguarding a senior’s dignity, work to find ways to keep them involved.

Give your parents choices rather than making all their decisions for them. For example, let them select the main course at mealtime. When you’re helping them dress, ask if they want to wear the black pants or the gray pants today. You can even hand over the remote when you’re watching TV.

According to Tracy Turner, a social worker and bereavement counselor, “Another way to engage is to draw on your parent’s decades of life experience and wisdom, whether it’s asking a question about child-rearing, events from the past or their opinion on a topic or news item.”

“They want to be helpful,” explains Beth Cole, a certified independent dementia consultant at Cole Caring Consulting. Take every opportunity to tap into your parents’ skillsets. Ask for advice on a recipe, how to fix a leaky faucet, or when to plant spring flowers.

Keeping them involved also extends to letting them do things for themselves. “They don’t want to be told what to do every single second, even if they could be doing it wrong,” says Cole. When her own mother, who has dementia, put her shoes on the wrong feet, Cole simply waited for her to figure it out for herself, an exercise in independence that your parents likely used on you.

When helping can actually hurt

While you may feel like you’re making things easier and safer for your parents by helping them, in the end, too much assistance could be doing them more damage than good.

“Taking over their care and their lives does nothing to preserve their independence,” says Bursack. “Instead, it ensures a premature loss of autonomy and purpose. Without these rights, quality of life declines and we fail in our original mission to ensure their well-being.”

When both of J. Appell’s parents had strokes, one of her highest priorities became their ultimate independence. Appell posted instructions for important tasks like taking their medications using large print and easy-to-follow photos. She also hung a list of emergency phone numbers over the phone and installed safety bars in the shower. “Often caregivers take things over and start doing things out of good intentions, but they unnecessarily add to the decline of those they care for,” Appell explains.

Since my father was diagnosed with vascular dementia, my stepmother has taken the reins on just about every part of his life. She helps him dress, puts his hearing aids in for him, delivers his dinner on a tray and is essentially at his beck and call 24/7. But lately, she’s been asking him for help on small tasks like making the bed and feeding the birds. And when he and I are going to lunch or just driving around town, I turn off the GPS and let him be my navigator. The other day when he was barking directions at me, I felt like I had my old confident, albeit pretty demanding, dad back!

While you’re working hard to protect your parents’ health and safety, don’t forget you should be carefully safeguarding their dignity too!

More in the series, “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging”

Writer Terri L. Jones shares more information on what to expect during the stages of aging and how to navigate this potentially challenging time.

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones